When I was in my early twenties, I was encouraged by a family friend to send op-eds to the media. I was a journalism student, and I had strong opinions. I sent my first op-ed to an online portal. It was about the financial feasibility of a “free education”. Specifically abolishing PTPTN loans and how free education came at a cost.

When it was published, and the editor informed me via e-mail, I was ecstatic. To see my name on the by-line and my thoughts laid out for the Malaysian public to see. I felt like I was doing a public service. That maybe the naïve reflections of an early 20s student would help shift public discourse on the subject.

Years since, I have never shied away from sending in op-eds. An issue would crop up, and I would reflect on it, considering my contribution to the discourse, researching the subject, and synthesising my thoughts on screen. However, as the years went by, I took up an early career as a journalist and eventually pivoted into research. Throughout the years, my op-ed contributions to be public sphere decreased.

It was not that I did not have anything to say. It was because I asked myself, why was it important for me to say it – and say it publicly?

The space of an op-ed or letters to the editor was for the public, whether subject expert or average citizen, to weigh in on current issues or highlight those not as well-covered. The space of an op-ed was, in other words, a concerned citizen’s voice represented unvarnished in the media. These days, social media platforms offer more amplification for such voices compared to media op-ed or columns.

The column has become a media-validated space to signal credibility. But is it still effective, or does it inspire trust? Here, I return to the why. Why should the public listen to me? Why do my reflections and public contributions matter? When I see the opinions of columnists or op-eds, I always ask why the person’s opinion matters. Are they subject matter experts? Do they have incisive and game-changing perspectives on issues?

From my observation, the space of media op-eds has become soapboxes. Often, the op-eds I read these days in local media are unimaginative or only exist to push agendas, whether social or political. There is a lack of reflective analysis that pushes the debate in public issues forward. The worse ones are rants disguised as intellectual reflections – these are a dime a dozen, speak to populist sentiment, and rarely add anything new to the conversation.

The longer I went down the road of being a journalist and subsequently a researcher, I became more conservative in publicly sharing my thoughts until I have developed a convincing enough argument. Better still, an original argument that does not sound like a regurgitation of different articles and light Google research. If my research career has taught me anything, it is that rigour, incisiveness, and a strong perspective is the key to a convincing argument.

A good op-ed makes you think. That makes you stop for a moment to reconsider your worldview and how you approach specific issues. Some op-eds add-on to your list of arguments to reinforce your beliefs – but the best ones are ones that challenge you. Others, often written by experts in their field, illuminate a path obscured by the messiness of social and political discourse.

I do not submit op-eds these days not because I do not have a solid argument to make but because if I do want to be part of public discourse, I want to make sure it adds value. Value in terms of illuminating one’s perspective and challenging present hegemonic ideologies. My arguments need to be incisive, well-researched and also convincing. If it does not – then I do not bother. If it does not – then I know my reflections make for better conversation fodder, not public discourse.